Journalism is a profession based on trust. The quality of our national debate and discourse is directly related to the integrity and reliability of our news media. Vigilant journalism helps to prevent the erosion of civil liberties and provides significant benefits for wider society.
Much of the recent public discussion about journalism – including the evidence given to the Leveson inquiry – has tended to focus on press regulation. But it is important that the many concerns about the future of serious journalism in the UK should not simply be reduced to a new regulatory imperative for newspapers.
Stronger or smarter regulation is only one of a number of levers that will have to be applied if we are to secure better journalism in the digital age. The work of regulation is largely that of eliminating various forms of bad behaviour, whereas the public interest also requires positive initiatives in support of good journalism. Tougher regulation on its own is not enough.
In my view, the most important change needed is the adoption of a new industry-wide code of conduct for all journalists and news organisations to give much clearer guidance on the higher ethical and editorial standards expected. There are values and principles which ought to be universal and transferable between all bona fide press, broadcast and online news services.
In my experience – in both newspapers and broadcasting – the vast majority of journalists are highly principled and have a strong sense of both professional purpose and public service. They know that being less bad than others is not good enough.
Journalists need an inspiring source of guidance on how they should fulfil their important role. The public also need to know what they should be able to expect from the news media. And the increasing numbers of voluntary or ‘citizen’ journalists should have access to a professional code from which they can adopt good practices.
We also need a new independent press regulator with more substantial (but not statutory) powers to investigate unethical behaviour, and the ability to impose significant sanctions including financial penalties.
A regulator that is independent of both government and the newspaper industry will avoid the risk of real or perceived interference and conflicts of interest. In the absence of statutory regulation, we would have a system of voluntary registration by newspapers and digital news services. I think it is possible to devise incentives which secure unanimous support and participation by all newspapers which wish to be regarded as serious providers of news and information.
One strong incentive – both a carrot and a stick – could be based on the already existing conventions around press accreditation and recognition, the arrangements which give journalists privileged access and special facilities at important places and events.
The many benefits of accreditation could be the key incentive that is required to persuade newspapers to sign up for a new voluntary system of independent regulation. If organisations decide not to participate, they are self-identifying as not being serious news sources and therefore not eligible for those benefits. They are still free to publish what they like, subject to the laws of the land, but they are not given the privileges and access of responsible news media. This strikes a new balance between benefits and obligations and turns a voluntary act of registration into a commercial imperative.
Other actions will also be required to strengthen the supply of serious and high-quality journalism:
• The maintenance or strengthening of public service broadcasting to ensure that not all news ventures are commercially driven
• Civil society organisations offering help to fund new initiatives to ensure greater quality and diversity of news sources
• A renewed emphasis in journalism education and training on professional ethics, including a clear commitment to understanding and upholding the public interest
• Extending the availability and take-up of high-speed broadband to enable universal access to a wide range of digital news
• Industry regulators, universities, civil society bodies and the news media should encourage more public debate around media ethics and behaviour
The current debate over ethical standards in journalism has an unprecedented priority and intensity, but that has to be seen as an opportunity to review policy and practice in a measured way to secure better news media in the digital age. In short, what we want to instil in our national press is not deference to authority, but rather the habit of integrity. It is up to all of us to be part of the debate. It is also up to individuals to take personal responsibility by not buying dishonest or unprincipled news products.
The main purpose of news journalism is to provide important information about significant events and issues, and to do so in a manner that is fair and accurate. So every loaded story, every contrived and hyped version of events, every quote taken out of context, every desperate attempt to find an angle that suits the corporate line, is a betrayal of the profession and a betrayal of the public interest. The question for real journalists should always be: “what is the story here?” It should never be: “how do I shape this story so as to serve a particular agenda or perspective?”
A successful new code of conduct needs to be inspiring and authentic to journalists, but also sufficiently clear and reassuring for those who depend upon journalists for reliable news and information.
Lord Justice Leveson will conclude his inquiry and publish his recommendations in the autumn, almost certainly marking the beginning of a new era in UK news media. It is a process of renewal and of innovation, because both are required.
It’s not just that the public should be able to have higher expectations of journalists, but that journalists should have higher expectations of themselves.
Blair Jenkins is Fellow of the Carnegie UK Trust and Visiting Professor in Journalism at Strathclyde University. Follow Blair on Twitter: @CarnegieUKTrust